The Bechdel Test (and other measures of bigotry)
By Talia Chen
Image via NPR.
Sometimes movies and books are lacking in the women department. Or the race department, or the sexuality department - the list of shortcomings is indefinite. Sometimes movies and books are just lacking in general. Now, there are plenty of ways to judge a certain form of media, from scathing critic reviews to low rotten tomato scores, but we’ll be focusing on one particular way to do it - the Bechdel Test. Invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (1960-present) and her friend Liz Wallace, the rules of the Bechdel Test (sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace Test) are
A movie should have at least two women
These two women should talk to each other
And they should talk to each other about something other than a man
Bechdel established this test in many of her comic strips, most notably “Dykes To Watch Out For” and “The Rule”. In addition to her friend Liz Wallace, Bechdel was also inspired by famed writer Virginia Woolf, who once noted, “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple”, going on to highlight the common trend of women in literature being illustrated only “in their relation to men.” ( A Room of One’s Own). In the past few decades, the satirical nature of the Bechdel Test has become a popular reminder of the importance of female representation in pop culture.
Some movies that pass the Bechdel test are listed below.
Almost any Barbie movie :)
The Addams Family
Always Be My Maybe
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
To All The Boys I've Ever Loved (Trilogy)
In The Heights
However, there are some exceptions with this test. After all, it’s originally satirical commentary on representation of women in media - the Bechdel Test is not supposed to extend past surface level analysis. Rather, it should remind creators that solid representation of women is important, and also not that hard to achieve. A movie could pass on a technicality but still demonstrate the influence of a majority male perspective in media, or vice versa. For example, IT by Stephen King passes the test because of a short exchange between Beverly, one of the main characters, and a girl who bullies her, but IT doesn’t have an outstanding female cast - Beverly is the only significant female character and King frequently includes descriptors of women’s nipples as an indicator of their feelings, which I find random and unnecessary, although I like his stories. It is, after all, hard to pigeon-hole many movies/books/songs into one conformity. Also listed below are some movies that don’t technically pass the Bechdel Test.
A lot of MCU (Marvel cinematic universe) movies that aren’t heroine solo movies ex. Iron Man, Spiderman: Far From Home, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, etc. :(
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2
The OG Star Wars Trilogy
The Art of Racing in the Rain
Jumanji: The Next Level
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Image via Brainless Tails.
As you can see, it’s not black and white. Movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test aren’t necessarily problematic, just perhaps lacking in female representation. There have since been many similar tests and character tropes brought into light by critics, although they vary in “accuracy”.
Mako Mori Test - A sort of derivative of the Bechdel Test - although with this one, Pacific Rim passes. It requires that a film include a female character with an arc that doesn't support a male character. This is a good example of how these tests have limited depth because while Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test for a lack of female characters, it passes its own Mako Mori Test because the sole female character has her own character arc.
Sexy Lamp Test - Basically, "If you can remove a female character from your plot and replace her with a sexy lamp and your story still works, you're a hack” - Kelly Sue DeConnick. Nuff said.
Vito Russo test - Tests for proper LGBTQ+ representation.
The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.
That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I.E. they are made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another.
The LGBTQ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should “matter.”
Riz test - Tests for proper representation of Muslim characters.
Are they talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
Are they presented as irrationally angry?
Are they presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
Are they presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
DuVernay test - Mirrors the Bechdel test but for characters of color - ideally talking about something other than a white person. Additionally, the characters shouldn’t be romantically involved with each other.
The Kent test - A series of questions concerning representation of women of color, graded on one point each. The resulting score is measured with a scale from abysmal to strong. It goes something like this:
A. Must not solely be a walking stereotype/trope. (1 Point)
B. Must have their own plot / narrative arc. (1 Point)
C. Must not be solely included in the narrative just for the purpose of “holding down” some male character and his story. (1 Point)
D. Must not solely be included in the narrative to prop up a White female character. (1 Point)
E. Must not solely exist in the film/piece of media for the purpose of fetishization. (1 Point)
F. Must have at least one interaction with another woman/femme of color. (1 Point)
G. Must not be the go-to character “sacrifice” in a film/piece of media (1 Point)
Smurfette Principle - when a cast of main characters only includes one woman. Examples include Pacific Rim, The Smurfs, IT, Dragon Ball Z, Fantastic Four, Justice League, Avengers, Star Wars, etc.
In general, all of these tests can be used with a grain of salt because it’s difficult to make broad generalizations about people’s artistic expressions. The point of these tests is to start discussions on representation, rather than sort movies into buckets. Ultimately, the Bechdel test is just a simple test - the question of whether a movie properly represents women can get a bit more complicated.
The Bechdel Test remains one of the most widespread measures of proper representation in pop culture. While exceptions do inevitably occur, its application is a solid reminder that there is more to life and movies than men.
Written by writer Talia Chen.